In search of old London, a writer steps back in time, courtesy of one of the city’s most venerable bespoke shoemakers, George Cleverley of Bond Street.
Photography James Bedford
When I was a child, I believed that all British accents were fake. I knew James Bond was a made-up person (that was confirmed by my mother), and while I’d met one real-life Englishman—my geography teacher—I was pretty sure he was faking his accent to impress me.
The second he got home, I imagined, he sighed with relief and talked to his wife in a garden- variety American voice.
Tourists in London tend to have similar suspicions. Is the changing of the guard an actual military maneuver? Or is it just a pageant staged for foreign children, like a Disneyland parade? Do English people actually eat blood pudding for breakfast? Or is it only served to foreigners at hotels, as a kind of prank? Do Londoners really say “jolly,” or do they just print it on their T-shirts? How much of “English Culture” is real? How much of it is for show?
To find out, I’ve come to Bond Street. According to my guidebook, it’s a district so emblematically English that the queen literally does her shopping here. (When a member of the royal family holds an account at a store for at least five years, the business is declared a Royal Warrant Holder. Bond Street has more of these than any street on earth.)
I encounter a smartly dressed couple laden with shopping bags, and I cheerfully ask them to recommend some local shops. “No inglés,” they say.
I start to get nervous. The guidebook promised authenticity. Have I been had?
A tailor at Kashket’s confirms my worst fears. “Oh, tourists love tradition,” he jokes, launching into an impression of a clueless American sightseer. “‘Ooh, I’ll have the fish and chips!’”
I force a laugh, deciding not to reveal the fact that I ordered fish and chips less than 30 minutes ago.
I consider returning to my hotel. My search for authenticity isn’t going very well, and I’m starting to doubt the freshness of the cod I consumed for lunch. But as I wobble through the Royal Arcade, a covered alleyway on Bond Street, a tiny shoestore catches my eye. There are no Royal Warrants, but I can’t stop staring at the handstitched merchandise: soft suede slippers, sleek black loafers, scaly boots made out of various reptiles. The shop’s sign is written in a cursive font so antiquated it takes me two minutes to decipher it: “G.J. Cleverley & Co. Ltd.”
Cleverley’s is one of the last traditional makers of English bespoke shoes. (“Bespoke” is a British term for “custom- made,” dating back to the days when shoes in progress were said to “be spoken for.”) In order to make a perfect pair, Cleverley sculpts a wooden model of a client’s feet, called a “last,” and builds the shoe around it over the course of several months. The Robb Report—an arbiter of all things luxe—has called shopping at Cleverley “a religious experience.”
I walk into the quiet store, determined to give Bond Street one last shot. The place certainly smells authentic: The aroma of shoe leather hits my nose the moment I enter—a smoky, buttery musk, as pungent as the beef in a New York steak house.
I’m quickly greeted by a young proprietor named George Glasgow Jr. His father is George Glasgow Sr., a legendary shoemaker who took over the business from G.J. Cleverley in 1991.
“You could write a whole book on my dad,” he boasts.
The younger George is handsome, enthusiastic and hilariously well-dressed in a custom gray suit from Anderson & Sheppard. When he takes off his calfskin Cleverleys to show off their design quirks, I notice his socks have purple tips—to match his tie.
“The shoe has to fit like a glove,” he says, explaining the shop’s philosophy. George Jr. flirted briefly with a career in finance, but his love of bespoke shoes brought him back to the family business. “It just felt like the natural fit,” he says. I smile at the pun, though his earnest expression suggests it was purely unintentional.
The store does not post any prices on its merchandise, but George Jr. is happy to give me the rundown. Ready-to-wear models range from £400 to £500 (around $625 to $780), depending on whether they’re made from calfskin or more expensive hides, like alligator. (“We use only the alligator’s stomach,” George Jr. explains. “That’s the best part.”)
For £950 (about $1,480), one can own a “semibespoke” pair. These come only in standard sizes (U.K. 6-12), but a customer can choose the style, shape and materials.
For the full Cleverley experience—multiple fittings, a last—you’ll have to shell out £2,100 (about $3,275).
Because every bespoke pair is unique, it’s difficult to generalize about their appearance. That said, George Jr. tells me he can recognize his company’s products by sight.
“I know exactly when it’s one of our shoes,” he insists. He can also visually distinguish, he claims, between bespoke and semibespoke models. I believe him.
George Sr. is just as enthusiastic as his son and perhaps even better dressed. When he enters the shop, I notice that his shoes’ silver buckles have been subtly sheathed in leather.
“This way is less bling-bling,” he points out. “As they say in the States.”
George Sr. has been toiling in shoeshops for 42 years. “The great train robbers didn’t get a bigger sentence than I did,” he jokes, before adding solemnly, “I think I can do another twenty years or so.”
According to George Sr., English bespoke styles have hardly changed at all since the 19th century. The industry, though, has undergone some dramatic shifts. In the 1960s there were more than 20 bespoke shoemakers in the West End Master Bootmakers Association. Now when the group meets for its annual tea party, only four members show up: Cleverley, Foster & Son, James Taylor and John Lobb.
George Sr. speaks respectfully about his competitors but can’t resist a gentle dig at a rival. “Taylor,” he says, his voice lowering, “is more of an orthopedic shoe.”
There are several other well-regarded bespoke shoemakers in London, including Berluti, Franklin and Carréducker. But George Sr. has never worn a competitor’s shoes. (George Jr. confesses to occasionally wearing Nikes his girlfriend bought him. “They’re comfortable,” he says.)
Cleverley’s most formidable competitor is Lobb, founded in 1849. A museum case in its shop on St. James’s Street features measurements of King George V’s feet (which, according to the cobbler’s notes, were “rather bony”).
Cleverley has countered by placing an even more important set of British footprints in its window: David Beckham’s. The company has also made shoes for Elton John, Winston Churchill and Ralph Lauren (the man).
When I ask George Sr. if his shop makes shoes for women, he chuckles. “If you’re a woman, you won’t wait that long for a pair of shoes.”
The only exceptions George Jr. can think of are his girlfriend, ’60s supermodel Twiggy and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
I follow both Georges up a narrow spiral staircase into the workroom. George Sr. shows me animal hides: calf, pig, alligator, ostrich, snake, frog and capybara (“a rodent with a nose like this,” he says, miming a grotesque snout).
There’s also 18th century Russian reindeer skin. The store has a cache of the stuff, thanks to an amateur diver who discovered the hides in a shipwreck in Plymouth Sound. The 200-year-old leather is in excellent condition, thanks to the quality of its production. It took a Russian factory five years to hand-roll the hides.
Cleverley’s first pair of “shipwreck shoes” was built for the Prince of Wales, who requested a round-toe wing tip.
The air in the workroom is thick with sawdust, and George Sr. has to shout to be heard over the sawing and clanking. He points at a shoe in progress, a two-tone black and white wing tip. “That guy likes a bit of glam,” he says. His voice lowers again. “Los Angeles, no doubt.”
In the back room there are 3,000 lasts hanging from the rafters. The Prince of Wales’ are displayed front and center, next to Tom Wolfe’s. Less famous feet are relegated to giant sacks in musty corners. I spot a last composed of two pieces of wood: the original foot mold and a second lovingly glued-on knob, added to account for a customer’s new bunion. People’s feet change over the years and Cleverley adjusts clients’ lasts accordingly. George Sr. calls this process “surgery.”
“Churchill called England a nation of shopkeepers,” George Sr. says proudly. “And it still is.”
But while Cleverley is doing well (the shop’s business actually grew during the recession), he admits his industry is “dying.” Only a small portion of the British public still orders bespoke shoes. A few doors down from Cleverley sits Camper, a contemporary chain that sells flip-flops for £25. The cashier wears a ponytail and beads—and doesn’t seem intimidated by his neighbor. “We have more colors,” he says.
George Cleverley is dependent on tourists for survival. The front page of the firm’s website contains Japanese text. And while the shoes are wholly produced in England, they’re sold all over. A Beverly Hills gallery opened this summer on Rodeo Drive, and Cleverley has agreed to sell shoes at a Honolulu shop called Leather Soul. George Sr. has hawked his wares all over the States, giving trunk shows in cities as far flung as Houston and Palm Beach. As I make my way back down the spiral staircase, I wonder: Will the Glasgows’ international aspirations diminish their shop’s authenticity? They’ve found new clients—George Clooney recently picked up a pair of ready-to-wears—but has something been lost along the way?
Just as these doubts enter my mind, an impeccably dressed man saunters past the store. He smiles at George Sr. through the window display, waving his wooden walking stick in greeting. “That’s the Duke of Beaufort,” George says, waving back at his loyal customer.
I can’t verify the man’s identity (and a cynical part of me wonders if there even is a Duke of Beaufort). But I choose to believe him. It’s just more fun that way. I thank my hosts profusely and barrel down Bond Street. If I hurry, I think I can still catch the changing of the guard.
SIMON RICH’s favorite shoes are old basketball sneakers.